PRINT April 2015


Ken Jacobs’s The Guests

Ken Jacobs, The Guests, 2013, 35 mm transferred to 3-D digital video, black-and-white and color, sound, 73 minutes.

The truest, most astounding, and perhaps most dangerous glory of the Lumière brothers is not to have spun the development of a “seventh art”. . . . No, its glory is having created a form of witchcraft akin to that of the prophet Joshua, which frees our worldview from servitude to the single rhythm of external, solar, and terrestrial time.

—Jean Epstein, L’intelligence d’une machine (1946)*

WHEN THE GREAT FILMMAKER and theorist Jean Epstein made the slightly mad claim cited above, it’s unlikely he had in mind anything resembling The Guests, a recent venture into the world of digital 3-D by the esteemed avant-garde moviemaker Ken Jacobs. Subjecting the latter half of the Lumière brothers’ film Entrée d’une noce à l’église (A Wedding Party Enters the Church, 1897) to his own inimitable sorcery, Jacobs more or less demolishes the spatio-temporal integrity of the original, exceeding the relatively benign effects he created via his “Nervous System” performance treatment of the first half of the film, conducted live in 1996. Titled Coupling, this earlier engagement with the Lumières’ footage showed the bride and groom and members of the wedding party entering the church prior to “the guests.” As his slide-projector installation of 1999 and his digital video of 2008, both titled The Guests, suggest, Jacobs has been entranced by the Lumières for decades. The advances of digital 3-D have finally allowed him to take this fascination to new depths.

Acknowledging the importance of Auguste and Louis Lumière to the history of cinema, Siegfried Kracauer, in his Theory of Film (1960), divided the filmmaking impulse—and, in effect, film history—into two main tendencies. To follow the “realistic tendency” was to photograph the “given reality” before the camera, with little or no manipulation, simply presenting it as such. For Kracauer, this tendency was embodied in the practice of the Lumières, who primarily filmed actual events and locations, recording the world long before the words documentary and newsreel were au courant. By contrast, the “formative tendency” favored staged and fantasy scenes, in which the framing, editing, and animating potentials of the medium turned what appeared before the camera into implausible images and impossible events, inverting the laws of space and time. Its early master was the theatrical genius Georges Méliès, whose subjects—as the title of his most famous film, Le voyage dans la lune (1902), suggests—frequently generated cinematic sleights of hand.

Among the joys of The Guests is watching Jacobs turn the “realistic” Lumière film into a medley of Mélièsian mayhem (replete with disorienting spatial displacements, visual mutations, reversals of action, and appearances and disappearances), upending the conventions of cinematic time and space and destabilizing the conditions of what film theorist André Bazin called the “ontology of the photographic image”—that is, its capacity to seize views of the world “automatically,” without human agency. Jacobs’s prestidigitations wreak havoc with Bazin’s somewhat naive characterization of the “transference of reality from the thing to its reproduction” via the patiently absorbed imprint of light onto celluloid—in effect, rendering the orderly procession ascending the steps and entering (offscreen) the church neither intact nor especially orderly.

To achieve these unprecedented effects, Jacobs had a 35-mm copy of the Lumière film converted to digital; he then manipulated the digital images on his computer, expanding the thirty-second fragment of the original to a seventy-three-minute movie. As a result, the progression of the wedding train is not so much slowed down as it is intermittently arrested, as incremental shifts alternate with “frozen” images. Unlike the unidirectional snail’s-pace continuity of conventional slow motion, the “movement” we perceive in The Guests is created via a juxtaposition of two sequential frames of the original, one of which is “sent” to the right eye and one to the left—as in a 3-D movie—and then, after a run of five or six frames, switching this around, all the while advancing forward. Put another way, as the right eye (A) receives frames 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, the left eye (B) is receiving 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Following each eight- or ten-second passage, Jacobs switches channels, so to speak, directing what had gone to A now to B and vice versa.

Just as this technique transmutes the nature of slow motion, the movie also exposes the anarchic potential of three-dimensionality. Jacobs attributes his lifelong obsession with “depth consciousness” to Hans Hofmann, one of his early mentors when he was studying to be an abstract painter, and since the advent of digital media he has expanded the parameters of this obsession. In The Guests, he goes so far as to create a form of three-dimensionality that might even be called crazy making, although its optical distortions could be seen as mischievous exaggerations of what Hofmann called the “push and pull” effect of the shifting forces of form, color, and space at play on the picture plane. In fact, the illusory play of advancing and receding colors in a painting is what inspired Jacobs to pursue his fascination with three-dimensionality by turning to filmmaking.

The visual distortions in The Guests derive from the deviant procedure Jacobs followed. Conventional three-dimensional illusion is created when two adjacent perspectives are viewed simultaneously, as in the antique stereoscope, through which the two images are fused by the viewer’s gaze (via the psychophysiological integration characteristic of normal binocular vision) into one coherent, three-dimensional image; or when we wear polarized glasses that effect the merging of two images projected simultaneously and superimposed one over the other into a single picture on the screen. The Guests still requires 3-D glasses, but in this case our eyes are trying to form a coherent single picture out of two different images in time. The illusion of three-dimensional space thus induced is one that does not accord with any “normal” optical perception of reality, with each frame change requiring an entirely fresh orientation.

Past the initial shock produced by Jacobs’s figure-ground inversions, the viewer is drawn into a disorienting environment, in which the very foundations on which we rely to “read” cinematic images are eroded. If the lines dividing the foreground, middle ground, and background of a moving image have never been rigidly determined, The Guests compounds this uncertainty, laying bare an underlying instability of the substratum of celluloid film, while at the same time exploiting the paradoxical fluidity—by which I mean a seemingly unrestricted floating-about of filmic matter—that this condition can generate. Thus, as the terms used to designate the perspectival boundaries of the moving image are exposed as mere linguistic conveniences, The Guests underlines the abyss between what we know and what we see.

In the Lumière actualité—which, at the end of his movie, Jacobs lets run unhindered, still in 3-D but otherwise seemingly normal when run at regular speed—we see the line of guests extending from immediately before the camera (foreground), down the church steps (middle ground), and into the white space of the square that abuts the church and through which people and horse-drawn carriages move (background); beyond that (far background), a row of shops appears at the opposite side of the square. Even though the illusion of deep space in this configuration is quite pronounced in an excellent 35-mm print, that balance between our cognitive and experiential perception on the one hand and our purely optical perception on the other still obtains. The Guests explores and exploits this terrain, unsettling all presumptions and challenging us to forget what we know about spatial coordinates and where the various people must be, in order to make us pay attention to what our eyes actually see.

As I watch a woman peeking curiously at the camera from the position I know she occupies, at the bottom of the procession line, she nevertheless seems adjacent to, in fact almost contiguous with, the open square beyond. Another woman, third in line, suddenly achieves paranormal status, as her left arm and hand appear to detach themselves, pushing forward to momentarily supersede the figure that stands in front of her. These are common phenomena throughout The Guests. Small objects, pieces of jewelry, flowers, and padded shoulders suddenly assume a disembodied “cutout” look, removed from the overall “canvas” and hovering nervously over the figures to which they belong—like those tiny specks or dark spots that often float before our eyes.

It seems more than fortuitous that the viewer’s initial visual astonishment is symbolically “registered” within the movie by the hypnotic gaze of a young boy in the “foreground,” preceding the line of guests standing at various levels on the steps behind him. Staring directly into the camera, and therefore at the viewer, he is vividly present, his expression earnest, his posture virtually suspended in the undefined space before us, as if, owing to those optical distortions, he were detached from the frame and those around him and headed elsewhere. The epitome of youth and promise—in contrast to the mature figures who flank him—he casts a gaze that is all the more poignant since it is toward a future that has long since passed. That fact is itself emphatically conveyed by the particular phenomenon this treatment effects: No sooner are we riveted by the boy’s gaze, which seems fixed before us, than we return from a fleeting look aside to realize he has vanished, as though into a black hole below the frame.

Though he is only one of many “distractions” induced by Jacobs’s elongated exercise, this boy entreats us not to ignore the humanist dimension of the Lumière film. In fact, far from being diminished by Jacobs’s deconstruction, that aspect is rendered all the more moving by the atomization achieved by his methods, which virtually identifies the fragility of the medium with the fates of those captured by it. Indeed, the very notion of distraction is privileged: Jacobs has taken a film that recorded a specific event at a specific location and transformed it into an extended series of multiple events at variable, shifting locations, revealing things that were, for turn-of-the-century viewers, undoubtedly swallowed up in the sheer wondrous spectacle of this early incarnation of the miracle of film. Seeing the Lumières’ footage as Jacobs presents it almost 120 years after it was shot, we are struck by how every mortal being passing before us resonates as a palpable presence moving inexorably toward imminent absence.

Beyond the intensification of time and piecemeal analysis of archival footage, practices Jacobs had already employed in the making of Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (1969–71), The Guests’s digital, three-dimensional dissection of the material basis of the medium results in an unexpectedly empathic embrace not only of a time, a place, and a population that have long since passed into history but of a technology that is well on its way. Yet as the revelatory capacity of moving pictures stretches from the Lumières to film and digital masters such as Jacobs, the liberating witchcraft of which Epstein spoke seems as vital as ever.

The Guests made its New York debut at the Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look Festival in January.

Tony Pipolo is a frequent contributor to Artforum.

*Jean Epstein, The Intelligence of a Machine, trans. Christophe Wall-Romana (Minneapolis: Univocal, 2014), 88.